HotSpots H2O: Water-Related Violence Spikes in Past Decade

An aerial of the Tigris- Euphrates. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Islamic State militants destroyed irrigation wells in Iraq. Police in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh killed five farmers during protests over water shortages. Water-related violence similar to these incidents has doubled in the past decade, according to data compiled by the Pacific Institute.

Major water-conflict hotspots included India, where the number of incidents jumped from 11 in the 2000s to 31 in the past decade. The weaponization of water throughout the Middle East, particularity in Syria, also played a role in the increase of water-related violence.

“The evidence is clear that there’s growing violence associated with freshwater resources, both conflicts over access to water and especially attacks on civilian water systems,” said Peter Gleick, an expert on global water issues, in an interview with The Guardian. “As water becomes more scarce, because it’s such a critical resource, people will do whatever they can do to meet their basic needs.”

Dozens of events in the past decade are documented in the database, including repeated weaponization of water in Syria and Yemen, ongoing farmer-herder conflicts across Africa, clashes over water shortages in India. The most recent entry is from eastern Ukraine, where shrapnel damage to a pipeline temporarily cut off water supplies for 3 million people.

Gleick is the founding president of the Pacific Institute. In the late 1980s, the California-based think tank began tracking the world’s water conflicts. 

When an instance of water-related violence occurs, the organization documents it in the Water Conflict Chronology. Three types of events are recorded: water as a trigger for conflict, water as a weapon of war, and water resources or systems that are a casualty of violence. The events are gleaned from open-source databases that monitor news reports for instances of conflict. 

Gleick says that the spike in incidents may be partially due to more awareness and better reporting. However, he notes that a small decline in events between 2000 and 2010 compared with the previous decade is evidence that water-related violence is rising today. 

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